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EPA announces Grasse River remediation plan

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MASSENA — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced its decision to move ahead on its proposed plan for Alcoa to clean up nearly two decades worth of industrial pollutants released in the Grasse River. The EPA’s approximately $245 million plan, recommended by a number of elected officials who weighed in on the cleanup, will include capping the majority of contaminated sediments in the river’s main channel, along with some dredging near the shoreline.

Alcoa released wastes from its aluminum production and fabrication facilities, including polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial pollutants, from the 1950s until the mid-1970s on the facility’s property and into the Grasse River.

Those actions have resulted in contaminated sediments in the waters near the Alcoa West plant and approximately seven miles downstream. Alcoa is liable for the cost of the cleanup.

The EPA’s decision comes one week after Alcoa announced its plans to proceed with the next phase of the modernization of its Massena aluminum production facilities, contingent on whether the EPA moves ahead with its proposed cleanup plan. Modernization is a requirement of a deal with the state that guarantees Alcoa a long-term supply of low-cost electricity from the New York Power Authority.

Alcoa has pledged to spend $42 million toward modernization work that would begin in June 2013, and contribute $10 million toward economic development in the north country.

Sen. Charles R. Schumer, who visited the Alcoa East Plant Monday to urge the EPA to move ahead on its proposed cleanup plan, praised the federal agency’s decision, saying it favorably balanced environmental responsibility with economic stability.

“The EPA’s official release of this fair and balanced Record of Decision is wonderful news for the north country on two fronts. It will clean up the Grasse River and allow Alcoa the flexibility and certainty it needs to retain over 900 jobs and expand its operations at the East Plant, which we believe will inevitably create even more jobs,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement.“This is one of the best things to happen to the region and St. Lawrence County in a very long time, and I am very proud that we have been a part of it from the beginning to end.”

Alcoa will spend two years designing a remediation strategy, and plan to bid the work out in 2015, with the majority of the remediation work expected to occur between 2016 and 2020.

The decision drew scathing criticism from members of the Mohawk community, who say they bore the brunt of the damage caused by almost two decades of contaminants released by the aluminum manufacturer.

Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief Ron LaFrance, Jr. said the tribe is “pretty disappointed” the EPA went with its proposed Grasse River remediation, saying they wanted to see a more thorough, and costly cleanup to remove contaminants which many say have caused substantial damages to the health and well-being of Akwesasne residents.

“Everybody in Akwesasne is disappointed. When they came to Akwesasne, we told them what that (pollution in the) river did to us, and we don’t think they heard us,” said Mr. LaFrance.

At a public information session EPA officials held in Akwesasne last November, more than a dozen Mohawks expressed criticism of the agency’s proposed remediation plan.

Mr. LaFrance said the EPA’s decision reflects a desire to appease big business, and disregards the Mohawk people who were most affected by the pollution.

Mr. LaFrance and others in the Mohawk community have expressed the opinion that the EPA is too heavily influenced by economic interests and too weakly committed to its mission of promoting environmental and human health.

The EPA explored 10 different cleanup alternatives, ranging from a three-year, $114 million option to an 18-year, $1.3 billion option, EPA Remedial Project Manager Young S. Chang said.

In November, EPA officials held a series of public information sessions in Massena and Akwesasne to gauge the support of the local community, because local community acceptance is one of nine factors the EPA considers when making its decision. Other factors the EPA considers in its decision include the cost of the cleanup, state acceptance, short- and long-term effectiveness, and overall protection to human health and the environment.

The majority of Massena residents expressed support for the proposed remediation plan, but most Akwesasne residents who commented at the hearing expressed a desire to see the most expensive and most thorough remediation for the Grasse River.

Echoing the statements of many Massena residents, government and economic officials, Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said he felt the EPA’s chosen cleanup plan is in the best interest of both supporting the local economy and cleaning the river of cancerous toxins, which resulted in a New York State Department of Health advisory not to consume fish caught from the river.

“The proposed remediation makes the best of a bad situation. It will significantly improve the quality of the river at a reasonable cost to Alcoa,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s practical and makes sense. I consider this good news for the greater community.”

Congressman Bill Owens also applauded the EPA’s decision, saying it would provide a staple for jobs and economic stability in the area.

“Finalizing a plan to clean up the Grasse River is another positive step forward for Alcoa, for workers and labor at the facility and for their families in the community,” Owens said. “Today’s announcement eliminates a roadblock that has created uncertainty around Alcoa’s modernization, and I applaud this progress.”

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